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Europe's Best-Known Retirement Secret

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Portugal's Algarve, located at Europe's westernmost tip and boasting 100 miles of Atlantic coastline, could be Europe's most famous secret. This region boasts Europe's best beaches, Europe's best golf courses, some of Europe's friendliest folk, and Western Europe's lowest cost of living. It's also Europe's newest tax haven.

European retirees have recognized all that the Algarve has to offer for a long time, and this sunny coastal region is the chosen destination for more than 100,000 of them. Beyond Europe, the Algarve is largely ignored as a retirement haven. However, if a Continental lifestyle appeals to you and don't have the budget for France, Italy, or Spain, this could be an appealing alternative.

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Specifically, I'd suggest taking a look at Silves and Lagoa, two municipalities that offer history, Old World charm, and spectacular beaches.

Silves, nestled in verdant valleys on the banks of the Arade River and surrounded by fields of citrus, offers a warm microclimate. It's like summertime all year long. In addition to orange and lemon trees, all around are the olive, carob, and fig trees the region is also known for. Silves' coastal town is Armação de Pêra, with an expansive white sandy beach.

Lagoa, with a capital town of the same name, is a much smaller municipality located close to the ocean and boasting 17 top beaches, specifically around the fishing towns of Carvoeiro and Ferragudo.

Lagoa's history is linked to the sea. Carvoeiro and Ferragudo, in particular, are important to the country's seafood and fish-preserves industries. The villages of Estômbar and Porches were important centers in the Islamic and medieval periods, and Porches is today the center of the region's pottery tradition.

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Silves' history is long, extending back to the Bronze and Iron ages. Its Arade River was a favored route of the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Carthaginians, who came in search of copper and iron. In the fourth century B.C., Silves boasted a strong defensive wall. In the ensuing centuries both the Romans and the Moors occupied the area. Today, Silves is best-known for its citrus; it's the largest producing region in Portugal.

Silves' two beaches, Armação de Pera and Praia Grande, boast coveted "blue flag" designation from the European Blue Flag Association. Lagoa, again, has 17 spectacular beaches, some of which you access via flights of stairs into cliff-enclosed coves bathed by azure waters.

Portugal has been named Europe's "Best Golf Destination" for 2014, and 40 of its top courses are in the Algarve. The Pinta and Gramacho courses in Lagoa and the Silves Golf Course are especially spectacular; you play against backdrops of ancient carob and olive trees, natural stone walls, and water features.

Lagoa is also an artistic hub, home to a music academy, a cultural academy, an arts center, and Portugal's principal foreign newspaper, The Portugal News. The music academy has an active orchestra with musicians ages 8 to 65.

What else could you do with yourself, retired to this part of the world?

Fatacil, the large fairgrounds in the province, hosts the International Algarve Fair every June. This unites the local and expatriate communities, as does the annual summer fair in August, with daily live concerts. Admission is a few euros a ticket per day, and you won't find better value for money on a sultry summer night.

The Medieval Fair in Silves is a celebration of the city's roots and features dancers, jugglers, flame-throwers fire-eaters, and snake charmers, along with a feast of regional cuisine. Many attend in period costume.

In Lagoa, the annual sweets festival showcases delicacies produced from local ingredients, including fig, orange, almond, and carob. And once a year in June the municipality celebrates the start of sardine season with more festivals and grilled sardines on every restaurant menu. Order by the half-dozen.

Throughout the year there are open-air jazz and classical concerts, most free. Experience jazz at Lagoa's Sitio das Fontes and local youth concerts at the Lagoa Auditorium. The Arade Congress Centre is the place to come for special events, from a motor car launch to a performance by the Russian ballet or the finals of the World Dance championships.

If you're looking for sporting and outdoors activities, try kayaking, paddling, or cave fishing on the Arade River. The sailing schools at the river mouth are a bargain by international standards.

If you play tennis, you could join fellow expats at the Carvoeiro tennis club. This town also has a well-stocked book exchange where you can donate and borrow books in English.

Bottom line, Portugal in general and the Algarve in particular offer an opportunity to savor the best of an old-school, Old World lifestyle at a very affordable cost. A couple of retirees could live well here on a budget of as little as $2,000 per month.

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